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Need a great small Spanish town (great for food that is)

This sounds like a travel question, but it is really a food question. Believe me, it's very much a food question.

I have two grade school kids. I want to go to Spain next April, One week will be in Barcelona. One week... I'm looking for an interesting small town, or region, or chunk of the countryside or whatever. What's interesting? Food, rustic setting, castles to climb around, restaurants, a market once or twice a week, day trips around the area, food, did I mention food yet.

This isn't an art museum and nightclubbing trip; it isn't the trip on which we'll go to El Bulli. This is a live there for a week, enjoy the countryside, eat at the same place three times because we love it and they smile at my kids, have at least a couple of other nice restaurants to choose from too kind of trip. In France I might suggest Aix-en-Provence, in Ireland the Dingle peninsula or Kilkenny. Smaller than the big capitol, but enough going on that we won't exhaust it the first day.

And, as I say, food is a big deciding factor-- not that it has four-star places necessarily, but that the local food is memorable. Where is that perfect place in Spain for what I seek?

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  1. I think that is an excellent question! My mother-in-law is from the Basque Country, so my wife and I go there pretty much every summer. I love the whole region, but I'm sure you're read plenty about the Basque Country already.

    Most summers we take a side trip for a few days. And so far, my favorite area besides the Basque Country is Asturias. The weather isn't guaranteed like most other parts of Spain, but that also means that it's very green, and there aren't many tourists.

    There's lots of history (I remember some Celtic ruins), beaches, and beautiful mountains (Picos de Europa) more inland.

    Lots of cool little towns that aren't too perfect. Great food everywhere--probably most famous for the bean stews and cabrales cheese (I think it's blue cheese from sheep). Very friendly people.

    Oh, and the most common drink is hard cider--sidra. Sidrerias everywhere you look. Really a great place...

    1 Reply
    1. re: ChrisB

      I second the Basque country, which is reknown for having the best food in Spain. San Sebastian, which is on the ocean and beautiful, is probably the best food city in Spain for both tapas (pinchos in the Basque counrty) and upscale restaurants like Arzak or Akelarre. There's an aquarium and an old-fashioned mountain top amusement park for your kids. If you have a car, the countryside gets very rural very fast. Pamplona (an hour away) is not as stunning as San Sebastian, but is more laid back and is in Navarra, the province with the best vegetables and a beautiful countryside. The fresh white asparagus and artichoke seasons are in the spring (both have denomination of origen status and both are as superior to what you'd get in a supermarket in the states as a Ferrari is to a Chevy Malibu). You will have better weather in the south and holy week, especially in Seville, is spectacular, but the food is not nearly as good. Tradional food in the center of the counry (Segovia or Extramadura) tends to be pretty heavy and meaty -- roasted meat, hearty stews, cured meats, that sort of thing -- which may not be the best for kids. But like somebody else said, just about anwhere you go in Spain will have good food, historical monuments, friendly people and a nice countryside. Almeria is about the one ugly city I've been to, and even that had decent towns a half hour away.

    2. Girona? It's awfully close to Barcelona, but is a charming town with wonderful food.

      1. Are you going to have a car?

        1. Segovia might fit the bill....

          2 Replies
          1. re: erica

            Reply to all of the above:

            ChrisB-- any cool little towns in particular?

            Torta-- I'm sure Girona will be a day trip from Barcelona. I'm thinking an entirely different region of Spain.

            Butterfly-- If I need one, I'll have one. I'd just as soon do without, but if it makes a particularly great place accessible, then I'll have one.

            Erica-- So tell me what you like about Segovia. I've got candidates I've read about, now I want real people's input!

            Thanks all, looking forward to additional comments.

            1. re: Morton Arthur Eaton

              On the eating front, what I loved in the towns surrounding Segovia was not so much the roast suckling pig, although that was excellent, but the roast suckling lamb. One of the capitals of this dish is the town of Sepulveda; you can visit the Canyons of the Duraton River nearby. Another "must" for baby lamb is the small town of Pedraza, complete with castle; this is among the loveliest towns I have visited in Spain. From Segovia, El Escorial, La Granja, and Avila are easy day trips.

          2. Segovia has a fablulous Disneyland-style castle as well as a huge Roman aquaduct running
            through town. It's also the roast baby pig capital of the earth. The downside is it's a fairly
            small town and most visitors are on a day trip from Madrid. I'm not sure there's a week's
            worth of stuff to do there. You'd probably want to have a car or need to get real familiar with
            the excellent but sometimes confusing intercity bus system to branch out to maybe Toledo
            and Salamanca. Be prepared to eat a lot of you'll-remember-this-meal-for-a-lifetime pork;
            search posts for "cochinillo".
            Segovia: http://www.segoviamint.org/english/se...

            The traditional Cordoba-Granada-Sevilla triangle is a week's worth of adventure though
            somewhat of a touristical cliche and great chow is harder to come by.

            Probably no one you know has been to Extremadura. if you have even a passing interest
            in the Conquistadores, where they came from, why they were such insanely violent people,
            what happened to them after they slaughtered the Incas, this is the place to come and
            learn about their centuries of history as dirt-poor subsistence pig farmers. The best spanish
            hams (the best hams anywhere, in fact) come from the little black pigs living in the
            cork forests here eating acorns. It's still an extremely poor corner of europe -- the most
            typical regional dish is Migas, fried breadcrumbs. The bus system works very well here.

            Maybe the Atlantic coast? You can safely skip San Sebastian, unless you've got a need to
            eat in restaurants you've heard about in the Times but then you'd be missing actual
            Spain. Start in Santender where the seafood, particularly Rabas, a calamari-like fried
            tapa, rules. Hit Gijon and Oviedo and try to find the tastiest Fabada in Spain. if you pass
            through Unquera, eat a Corbata or two. Head up into the Picos de Europa where you'll
            find four of the great spanish food secrets: Cabrales, Orujo, Sidra, and Cocido Montanes.
            A car is absolutely necessary here unless you have a *lot* of time to spare. The caves
            at Altamira, the torture museum at Santillana del Mar, the farmers carving their wooden
            shoes in Carmona should all provide enough entertainment for the kids. Visit Potes.
            Eat all the cheese you can.

            You can pretty much throw a dart at a map of Spain and be assured of hitting someplace
            real interesting with amazing food. Someone here a while back discribed Barcelona as "spain
            with training wheels". Which nails it. So your plan on a week there and then getting away is a
            real good one.

            1. I wouldn't recommend Asturias without a car... My favorite medium-sized towns in Asturias are Llanes, Ribadesella, Cudillero, and Cangas de Ónis--all have much offer in the way of good food (particularly shellfish and seafood).

              But I think Cordoba may be the place for you. The whole city is easily walkable. The weather will be very nice in April (much dicier in the north). There's the mezquita (mosque), Jewish Quarter (judería) Río Guadalquivir, old roman bridge and mills on islands in the river, Alcázar, more Muslim and Roman ruins a short trip on the bus outside of town. Paths leading out of the city into the countryside. Olive trees as far as you can see and lots of good, accessible food in the area. Most people use it as a day-long stopover on a one week whirlwind trip through Spain, but it would be a nice relaxing place to spend a whole week.

              If you are looking for smaller towns with less tourism, then you might consider medieval Zamora (in Castilla on the Río Duero--great cheese and wine), San Lúcar de Barrameda (coastal city in Andalucía near Cádiz--great seafood), the quirky old part of Peñiscola and its beaches (and good rice dishes and mediterranean seafood), Teruel (in Zaragoza with its muslim and mudéjar architecture and nearby dinosaur museum and theme park) or, if you are going to be here during the first half of April, you might consider somewhere in Extremadura, so you can catch the cherry blossoms in the Valle del Jerte (popular with Spaniards, but few foreign tourists make it there--good cheese and ham). If you consider this last option, there are rural inns that are set on farms where kids can see the animals and many make their own cheeses and other artisanal products--but you would want a car.

              If you are going to be here the first week of April, keep in mind that this will be Semana Santa and the whole country will be on vacation. There will be lots of processions and interesting things going on, but some places will also be closed (particularly in Madrid and Barcelona) and you'll want to make hotel reservations well in advance. I really like Semana Santa in Cordoba. It's got a lot of soul without the insanity of some of the other cities in Andalucía. Zamora is another interesting Semana Santa town.

              6 Replies
              1. re: butterfly

                NYT travel section recently did a piece on Cordoba. Although, frankly, a bit too much of "I've been on a junket and am now lifting directly from all the text they gave me while there", it might provide the OP with other information as he considers Cordoba. I admit, it made me wish I *hadn't* skipped Cordoba, but I didn't want to do the whirlwind tour, so settled on one or two places.

                1. re: Smokey

                  Thanks, I hadn't seen that article. Here it is:


                  In typical NYT travel section fashion, the hotel and food recs are a bit out of whack... We're going on a little two-day trip there this week (though it's another big Spanish holiday, so things will be a bit strange). I'll try to report back on the gastronomic side of things.

                  1. re: butterfly

                    I've had a pretty decent meal or two at El Caballo Rojo directly across
                    from the mezquita. The Times' suggestion of a sushi place is bizarre.

                    The Red Horse is about as unadventurous a chioce as possible, since it's
                    sitting right there. It seems like there should be something great across
                    the river, but I've never found it. I'm totally looking forward to a new
                    report! I never really got a good sense of Cordoba.

                2. re: butterfly

                  Thanks, everybody, for great suggestions and insights. I'm in the process of reading up

                  One of the weeks will be Easter week. I'm kind of torn about that. It'd be pretty cool to see festivals like that-- though not if I'm spending the whole time worrying that my little one is about to get lost in a Mardi Gras-like crowd. At the same time, it'd be foolish to go somewhere like Barcelona if it's going to be half closed and then go to some smaller place after all the excitement is over, wouldn't it? So do I risk Easter in a place like Cordoba, or not?

                  I read Pig Perfect so I'd love to visit Jamon Iberico country. As much as anything, what got me wanting to go to Spain was seeing Bourdain eat that ham in his El Bulli special. And the kids would LOVE living on a farm. (If we have to rent a car for half the trip, fine.)

                  1. re: Morton Arthur Eaton

                    Holy week is not much of a party scene. I went to Seville, the biggesst by far. People stay up literally all night and the streets get fairly packed, but it's a subdued somewhat solemn crowd, not like Mardi Gras or San Fermin.

                    1. re: Zabalburu

                      Agreed that it's not a drunken sort of event, but as someone who has taken a small child to different spots for Semana Santa over the past three years, I would skip Sevilla and go for a smaller one. My son is basically a Madrileño, so he is used to being in huge crowds, but Feria de Abril and Semana Santa in Sevilla are too much, even for him.

                3. Iberico Country is really Extremadura.

                  I recently did a tour of that area ( including touching on a couple of other regions ) It is a great area and a bit off the beaten track as far as the tourist trail is concerned.

                  One of the spiritual homes of Iberico is Guijuelo which was fun to visit although it is so small they are still saving up to buy the one horse. Other small towns worth visiting were Placencia, Merida, Caceres, Trujillo and Avilla.

                  here are a few links to piccies I posted on my blog about it. Hope they help.








                  3 Replies
                  1. re: Simon Majumdar

                    If you plan on visiting Extremedura, you must must must find and watch a copy
                    of Buñuel's short 1933 film "Land Without Bread" (original title: Las Hurdes). It's
                    at once a horrifying documentary of the region's poverty, a political polemic, a surrealist
                    masterpiece, and a comic tour-de-force.

                    At the very least, you will gain a large appreciation for the cherries, ham, and fried


                    1. re: Chuckles the Clone

                      Don't knock the migas, fried bread crumbs. In the contemporary upscale version they are delicious studded with all kinds of pork products. Any trip to this area must include the La Vera Valley, home of the famous smoked paprika, pimenton. The New York Times did an article about visiting Iberico country in Andalucia; a few years back but you could search for it..in and around the town of Jabugo.

                    2. re: Simon Majumdar

                      The first week of April should be the tail end of the peak cherry blossoms in the Valle del Jerte (Extremadura). Over a million trees--it's really something to see and there's a big local festival the last week of March and first few days of April, as well. But... the weather could be dicey in April. It tends to be much rainier and, outside of the valleys, colder in that region than in Andalucia.

                      Our cousin's abuela makes migas con chocolate... rico!

                    3. One other place worth going to is the province of Jaen. The tapas are great there - always free and very varied. It also hasn't been spoilt by too many visitors - they all by pass it for Granada and the coast.

                      We stayed in Ubeda for a night a few years ago - it's a beautiful town and the centre of the pottery universe. It's a goodplace to visit Granada and other places because, although it's a town, it's relatively peaceful.

                      2 Replies
                      1. re: Theresa

                        I have to admit, the +1 and I were tempted to go to Jaen when we went to Span a couple of years back. It's a really tough choice when you're making travel plans. We wanted to see Spain and get a sense of the culture/food/life. At the same time, there are unique architectural wonders or other tangible testaments to history there that you don't want to miss (particularly when you're not sure when/if you'll return). Sigh. We ended up going to Seville (for the alcazar et al) and Ronda (simply for something smaller). We actually ended up having some great food in Ronda (I posted details on it when we returned)--among other things an amazing patisserie. I'll admit, when we first arrived we were ready to turnaround immediately. At mid-day, the town is swarming with septugenarians released from their tour buses (honestly, I've got nothing against septugenarians, but none of them were very friendly), who descend with all the finesse of a plague of locusts and retreat as suddenly. It creates a weird rhythym (sp?) to the town, but it's actually a really charming place.

                        Anyway, I'm not contradicting your recommendation at all, Theresa, more just ruminating on the difficulty of travel planning in a world with limited time/resources!

                        1. re: Smokey

                          I have bee to Jaen twice, and it is a great little town with lots of things to see and do. One time there was a week long circus-carnival there.

                          GREAT TAPAS! And the "free and varied" statement was true. As a matter of fact...might put that on the itinerary this year also.....

                      2. I think one thing people are looking over is that they want to be in a small town for a while. That essentially means that the food has to be good AND it has to be a nice (read pretty and hospitable) place to be.
                        I'd recommend somewhere in Galicia. For beauty it gets an A+...and the food certainly doesn't trail far behind. We're talking about seafood of the most wonderful variety and of the freshest caliber. Spain's most prized seafood comes from Galicia, so I'd suggest going to the source.
                        Santiago de Compostela would be a nice choice, especially considering the lengths people go to to get there (pilgrimages and the like). However, a nice beach location might be a good choice as well. Vigo is a small fishing port, which is lovely, while A (La) Coruna (sorry I can't make the tilda) is a bit larger.
                        The food in Galicia just crushes the rest of Spain in my opinion. We're not talking about the "jamon y queso obsessed, don't give me a vegetable unless it's a tomato or a mushroom" crowd. The people of Galicia are a lovely bunch that still clings to small scale farming and fishing in a setting so lush and green that you might think your plane accidentally landed in Ireland...
                        My two cents.

                        1. I love Galicia, have family there and would certainly recommend a trip there.

                          Some pros: Santiago de Compostela and the cathedral. La Coruña is one of the most bustling small cities you'll ever go to with many brand new attractions. It's probably the cheapest part of Spain (unless you're buying shellfish). Necoras (barnacles). Pulpo (octopus) a la gallega. Raxo (pork in garlic sauce). Pimientos del padron. Very good prime ingredients in general. Not a lot of foreign tourists, especially off the Camino de Santiago. Densely populated countryside means strong rurual culture. It has a temperate climate.

                          Cons: It rains a lot. The cuisine is very undeveloped -- good food, but not much innovation. Accent is a little difficult to understand. The people/culture are a little difficult to understand. If you drive in the country off the highway you'll probably get lost. Much of the country side is beautiful -- mountains and sea -- but much is cluttered by sprawling housing, lack of zoning that puts apartment buildings and warehouses next to groups of absurdly small farming plots, and (this is a mixed bag) eucalyptus trees everywhere in sight.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: Zabalburu

                            Nécora are velvet swimming crabs, not barnacles (percebes). But both are delicious. I also love Galicia--especially the northern coast. But it will very likely be quite rainy and chilly the first week of April. Like Asturias, very late spring and summer are a much nicer times to visit.

                            And I just don't agree with the nothing but ham and cheese comment in the rest of the country. Unless you are eating at truck stops, that's REALLY off base.

                            1. re: butterfly

                              Sorry, I did slip and confuse nécora and percebes, and yes both are delicious!

                              1. re: butterfly

                                Actually, a couple of the best meals I've had in Spain were at truck stops. That one 101km
                                east of Madrid (called "101 something" or something..) and there's one about
                                halfway between Sevilla and Granada. Another good one down near Valdepenas
                                (NOT! the one the bus to Granada stops in, Yuck!)

                                Maybe I was just really hungry, but the big rooms filled with truck drivers all at single
                                tables each with a big bottle of wine (hmmm...), no menu just a fast list of things from the
                                waiter, giant plates of roast something or other -- I really enjoyed them.

                                I've gotta concur, if you come away from Spain thinking it's all (or even most, or even a lot)
                                obsessed with ham and cheese then something wrong has happened and you should re-try.

                                1. re: Chuckles the Clone

                                  My grandfather's advice for roadside eating was to always stop where you see a lot of trucks, since truckers know the territory better than anybody else. Those places do seem pretty hit or miss though, despite the charm Chuckles points out (I'm picturing plastic beads across the door to keep the flies out of the really old-school ones) unless you have some local knowledge to rely on. I did once have a shockingly good meal in the dining room inside a gas station in Zalduondo, Alava.

                            2. I don't know if I need to "re-try" as you say. I've lived in Madrid for over a year and traveled extensively throughout Spain. I think that I've developed a pretty strong and educated opinion about the ham and cheese obsession. I may be stressing it a bit, but please tell me that a country that has chains of restaurants called 'Museo del Jamon' doesn't have a bit of an obsession...please. It's not a bad thing, the ham is fantastic (the cheese is a bit monotone for my taste), but if you're going for a culinary experience and have kids to boot, you might want to be careful. That's all I'm saying.

                              1 Reply
                              1. re: Aaron

                                I also live in Madrid and have a completely different take on the food here--and I have a five year old and spend a lot of time with little kids. The variety of food that they eat at his public school, alone, puts the US to shame. Madrid has the second largest fish market in the world. If anything, people here are obsessed with fish and sea creatures.

                                There are fruterías everywhere selling fresh fruit and vegetables. There are literally thousands of restaurants and tapas bars here and about 15 Museo del Jamón branches... (There are over 150 McDonald's restaurants in NYC alone. I'd hate to think what that could tell us about American eating habits.) I think that if you only find jamón and cheese where ever you go, then you are either trying to eat during off hours or frequenting cafeterías/bars for food (which is kind of like relying on 7-11 for sustenance).

                              2. Going to Sevilla, Jerez and Ronda in February. Gimme some ideas.

                                2 Replies
                                1. re: wittlejosh

                                  I didn't have much money to spend on fancy restaurants when I visited those cities, but my best memories of tapas were "pescaito frito" (fried fish) in Seville and "carne mechada" (shredded meat) in Jerez, the latter of which goes perfectly with, of course, a glass of sherry. Also remember the shrimp, especially the tiny insect-size ones they sold on the streets in paper cones. They were so fresh they were litterally hoping around the pile in the vending stands. The locals say that the sherry changes flavor when it's shipped away from the area where it's produced. I don't know if that's true, but it really was wonderful in Jerez.

                                  1. re: wittlejosh

                                    I posted on my trip to Seville and Ronda about two years back, and included some specific recommendations on Ronda. You might want to see if you can search and find them.

                                  2. Hey Morton Arthur Eaton-- Did you choose a spot? I spent some time in Extremadura recently and might be able to help out if you are planning to go there. I also did a weekend trip to Córdoba--lots of construction going on there right now--maybe not the best time to visit... We're going to head down south to the Costa de la Luz during semana santa. Could be a good option for you as well--the triangle around Jerez, Vejar, Zahara de los Atunes, Caños de Meca, up toward Cádiz, etc. Beaches, horses, ruins, parks and lots of walking paths...

                                    1. I suggest you take a ferry to Palma Mallorca then take a cab (or rent a car) and go to Vallemosa. This is a tiny mountain village from where hails Santa Catalina Tomas. Chopin stayed there with George Sand. The food is all exquisite anywhere you go. Though I personally would esconce myself inside the pasteleria eating robiols, cruspells, and ensaimadas the entire time. =o)

                                      2 Replies
                                      1. re: Granny Jo

                                        Zaragoza not so much a small town but a town that gets relatively little coverage ( although that is due to change when they get 7 million visitors next year for the Xpo 08)

                                        I just returned from a long weekend there and I have to say that, Madrid apart, it has the best evolved tapa culture of any town I have been to in Spain.

                                        There are a wealth of bars which offer a mix of the montadito, the picadillo and the more usual offerings.

                                        particular favourites were madejas which were lamb skewers wrapped in lamb's intestines and then grilled

                                        It has, I am told, one of the highest density of bars in Spain and that certainly seemed to be true on our visit.

                                        It is also a great town to look around with The Basilica Pilar being one of the most venerated in Spain.

                                        Finally, and perhaps the best reason to visit is to go to La Jamoneria. A small restaurant run by Felix Jose Martinez, otherwise known as El Cortador De jamon. He is considered the finest cutter of Jamon in Spain and is flown all over the world to give demonstrations.

                                        We were lucky enough to spend some time with him and I put a few seconds of him and more of his segundo on my blog


                                        A fabulous town and well worth a visit


                                        1. re: Simon Majumdar

                                          if you're going to be staying in madrid at all, id highly suggest taking a ride out to alcala de henares. i lived there for a few months a few years ago. there is delicious food all around (and very cheap compared to madrid and barcelona). id highly recommend one particular restaurant: el quijote. they have hands down the best sandwiches i've ever had (think fried leaky egg + lomo on gorgeous fresh bread) and they have incredible tapas. also, when i have there a huge double carafe of wine was 800 pesatas, or about 3 euros at this point. besides el quijote, there is a lot to see, including a gorgeous castle, the beautiful university (where columbus asked the king and queen if he could go to america) and cervantes' house. the town square (plaza cervantes) is beautiful.

                                          outside madrid i would suggest cuenca, segovia, ubeda, and most certainly grenada and cordoba.